The Impasse of US-China Relations
Image Credit: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

The Impasse of US-China Relations


Chinese President Xi Jinping made an official visit to the United States in late September 2015 with great expectations. The top priority on his agenda was his determination to seek official U.S. endorsement of his initiative for a “new model of major-country relations” and to set U.S.-China relations on the right course accordingly. Unfortunately, given U.S. apprehension of Xi’s heavy agenda and frustrations over repeated clashes with China in the Western Pacific in recent years (even in the days prior to the summit), President Barack Obama did not answer Xi’s calls and the Chinese president returned to China virtually empty-handed.

China’s Quest for Compromise

China and the United States have had a bumpy relationship since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. In recent decades, this relationship has been complicated by a power transition process, triggered by the economic rise of China.

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Power transition is a struggle among the big nations (big primarily in terms of their geography and demographics) within the international system. It is between a previously underdeveloped and disgruntled yet currently rising big nation that challenges the powerful stakeholders of the system. The struggle is about the international political, economic, and security order that reflect the values and interests of the most powerful nations.

Thucydides, the ancient Greek historian, is perhaps the first to argue that power transition carries the seeds of war. In his observation of the Peloponnesian War between Sparta and Athens, Thucydides asserted that the growth of Athenian power and the fear generated on the Spartan side had trapped the two powerful nations into a war for 27 years.

The ancient Greek tragedy is hardly the only example of this: There have been many other power transitions throughout history. Almost all ended in war. The unfolding U.S.-China power transition therefore begs the question whether it will fall into the same trap.

The Chinese argued at the outset that power transition was a Western experience, and the Thucydides Trap should not apply to China’s relations with the United States. However, Chinese leaders have gradually learned that China’s rising power is creating forces beyond their control and making the China-U.S. relations more contentious. Thus, in an attempt to ease the U.S. concern, China put forward a “Peaceful Development” call in 2003, promising not to challenge U.S. supremacy and not to repeat the mistakes made by past great powers.

On the surface, the Chinese move is a step in the right direction. However, it does not guarantee enduring and positive China-U.S. relations forever, as areas of contention have continued to trouble the two nations. In a 2013 meeting with Obama at the Sunnylands Resort, California, Xi took the Peaceful Development promise a step further, turning it into a guideline for U.S.-China relations (and for other big nation relations as well). Xi’s initiative has three action codes: China and the United States should strive for 1) no confrontation, 2) mutual respect for core interests, and 3) win-win cooperation.

Deciphering Xi’s Model

Xi’s model is remarkably simple; yet loaded with heavy requirements. First, Xi holds that although China and the United States have many conflicts, the two nations should not take war as an option to settle their differences; and if the United States and China can make a pledge on this point, tensions between the two nations will not automatically become a test of will or set the two nations’ war machines in motion.

Second, strategic trust must be based on mutual respect. On this point, Xi insists that China has suffered a “respect deficit” from the United States. In other words, the U.S. challenge to China’s form of government, its quest for territorial integrity, and China’s “rightful place in the world,” all of which are China’s core interests. Xi reminds the United States that China is now more powerful and deserves due respect accordingly.

Finally, Xi reiterates the Peaceful Development promise that his rising China has no intention to uproot the United States or the U.S.-led international order; China does not seek unilateral gains in the competition with the United States; and the China-U.S. competition will not be existential (zero-sum) but instead will be mutually beneficial (win-win).

In the past three years, Xi (and the Chinese government) has made extraordinary efforts to sell this initiative. However, Xi also sees that his U.S. counterpart has been reluctant to give him a wholehearted endorsement. Xi therefore made “getting the United States on board” the centerpiece of his official visit to America. Indeed, Xi seized every opportunity to remind Obama of the “Sunnylands agreement,” the three action codes, the danger of falling into the Thucydides Trap, and the imperatives of U.S.-China mutual respect and cooperation.

U.S. Ambivalence

The United States has been cautious with China’s broad-brushed calls. The concern is that the Chinese initiative is in essence asking the United States to give China an unearned status and a license to do whatever it wants. This is especially troublesome with respect to the second point in Xi’s model, for the United States does not see eye to eye with China over its core interests. For instance, top among China’s stated core interests is the preservation of the Communist Party-ruled political system. The United States can deal with the Chinese government, but it cannot turn a blind eye to what it sees as the misconduct of China’s repressive regime. With a fundamental difference on this issue, conflict, rather than respect, is the normal state of affairs.

Another top Chinese core interest is about China’s territorial integrity. This is a contentious and unsettling issue and China is currently engaged in intense territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. Although the United States does not take sides on the disputes, it does not agree that the disputed territories form part of China’s territorial integrity. Asking the United States to respect this Chinese core interest is like putting the cart before the horse, and the U.S. will not endorse it.

From a cultural perspective, U.S.-China interactions are difficult because the two nations do not sing the same tune. Xi likes to talk about lofty principles and express vision on a large scale. He sees the U.S.-China relationship as complicated; but like an entangled fishing net – once the head rope is pulled, the meshes will open. In other words, if the two nations’ leaders can grasp the key link, they can set the complicated issues in order; and from Xi’s view, the key link is strategic trust and mutual respect.

To Americans, Xi’s figurative speech is difficult to comprehend. The United States is a problem-solver and action-oriented. Instead of engaging in obscure talk, Americans like to tackle specific issues. Indeed, Obama prepared a laundry-list of problems for Xi, such as China’s cyber-hacking and espionage, unfair trade practices, currency and stock market manipulation, human rights violations, assertive behavior in East and South China Sea territorial disputes, reckless encounters with U.S. military in the Western Pacific, and so on. He began talking about the problems even at Xi’s arrival ceremony at the White House. For the United States, solving these practical problems is the best way to improve U.S.-China relations.

A “Superpower Summit” Going Sidetracked

Xi came to “the Washington of the West” on the same day Pope Francis made his historic visit to “the Washington of the East.” U.S. attention was all on the lovable Pope. The Chinese president’s arrival did not even make any of the major U.S. network news broadcasts.

Xi’s delegation included 15 of the richest Chinese. They represent a combined wealth of more than $1.3 trillion, about the size of South Korea’s GDP (2013 measures), the 13th largest economy in the world, and were ready to spend. Indeed, for their first purchase, they bought 300 Boeing passenger planes, the largest single order on record. Unfortunately, this was not enough to attract any American attention. The Chinese delegation, like many Chinese tourist groups nowadays, was left to spend their money at the gigantic “Seattle Outlet Mall.”

When Xi Jinping finally arrived in Washington DC, he was once again ignored as U.S. attention was focused elsewhere. House Speaker John Boehner had suddenly announced his resignation. His earlier-than-expected move had instantly become the talk of the town in Washington. When Xi and Obama came to meet the press, U.S. journalists could not help but to turn the presidential joint press conference into a U.S. domestic politics forum. Xi stood by the podium awkwardly watching Obama talk about domestic politics.

A New Model of Major Country Relations?

There was no joint statement following the Xi-Obama meetings. This was an apparent disappointment for Xi. Worse, the two sides were left to provide their own account of what had taken place in the presidential meetings; and there were oddly large inconsistencies. The Chinese side listed 49 “consensuses” as the “accomplishments of Xi’s visit to the United States” whereas the U.S. side listed fewer items and had them in a different order. (Concerned readers are left to figure out the “agreements.”)

The biggest difference was on Xi’s model for major-country relations. The Chinese foreign minister claimed that Xi and Obama had an extensive discussion of the new model. The No. 1 item on the Chinese list states that “the two sides commended the important outcomes of the meeting at Sunnylands in 2013, the meeting in Beijing in 2014, and the meeting in Washington in 2015 between the two presidents, and agreed to continue their efforts to build a new model of major-country relationship between China and the United States based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” However, the White House documentation has no record of Obama discussing the model with Xi and there is no mention of the Chinese initiative in any of the statements and releases either.

We don’t know which side is telling the true story. Yet one can see that the different accounts are clearly bumps in the U.S.-China power transition. As this journey continues, the Chinese side will continue to press for mutual trust and respect; and insist that practical issues will go away if they have the strategic commitment from the United States. The U.S., however, always goes after specific problems in the two nations’ relations; and believes that trust and respect can only come from measurable cooperation. This journey will continue to be bumpy if the two nations continue to talk past each other with neither side willing to break the impasse.

David Lai, Ph.D., is Research Professor of Asian Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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